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The Chowchilla Kidnapping

School bus driver Frank Edward Ray, known as “Ed”, pulled over to the side of the road in Chowchilla, California on July 15, 1976 after seeing a fellow motorist who appeared to be in distress. The seemingly broken-down van was a ruse, however, as the driver appeared at the school bus door with his face hidden by a stocking and guns in his hand.

After boarding the bus and forcing Ray to move to the back with the children, the masked man was joined by two accomplices. One guarded the passengers while the other two drove the bus and van to another location, where Ray and the children were ordered to leave the bus, which was then hidden in a drainage area. Some passengers were forced into the white van and the rest entered another van that was at the stopping point.

The vans drove for an unknown length of time, possibly 11 hours or more. When the vehicles stopped, the abductors directed Ray and all of the children to climb down a ladder that led to a makeshift underground bunker. This do-it-yourself prison consisted of a 8’ x 16’ moving van that had been buried by the kidnappers at a rock quarry and equipped with 14 mattresses and box springs, air vents, holes for toilets, and a bit of food and water. The hole through which the hostages entered was covered with a metal lid that was secured by the weight of two industrial-sized batteries, a total of 200 pounds.

If the abduction seems well-planned in advance, that’s because it was. The kidnappers, Fred Woods and his friends, brothers Jim and Rick Schoenfeld, all came from well-to-do families. Each family owned their own business, including the rock quarry where the prisoners were kept, which belonged to the Woodses. These children of privilege sought a way to make their own money, and kidnapping for ransom seemed an easy route to riches. The plan, constructed over 18 months, never involved harming any hostages, but simply taking them, collecting the money and releasing them safe and sound, all within a period of 24 hours.

Soon after the abduction, as the afternoon gave way to the evening, worried parents began phoning the school, asking why their children had not yet arrived home. School staff drove Ray’s expected route without finding the bus either stranded with mechanical problems or parked at any of the local garages. The local police became involved, expanding the search. Just after 8 pm, the parents got the news that the bus had been located…but their children were nowhere to be found.

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